Montana Residents Back Home After Widlfires

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- Doug Best knew a fire was burning somewhere in the mountains behind his home on O'Brien Creek Road here, but the smoke seemed to be lifting, without a plume in sight.

Hours later, Best and his wife Alison were packing their belongings just ahead of yellow-shirted deputies who drove up and told them they had an hour to get out. Overhead an enormous column of gray smoke from the raging Black Mountain 2 fire threatened to extinguish the sun.

``It happened in a huge, huge hurry,'' Best said. ``It was pretty obvious that fire was going to do what it wanted.''

On Monday, fire officials allowed Best and about 55 other families living on O'Brien Creek and Lyon Creek roads to return to their homes. The fire had spared them, but took three other homes above them on Cedar Ridge Road. Everyone was safely evacuated.

``It looks better than I thought it would,'' Best said of his unscathed home.

Cedar Ridge Road, where about 15 families were evacuated during the fire's blow up Saturday evening, remained off limits Monday.

Fire officials said they took advantage of favorable weather Monday to reclaim and strengthen fire lines, finishing up work on 14 miles of fire lines around the Black Mountain 2.

At the same time, they were getting ready for a new cold front to move in, similar to the one that caused the spectacular blowup.

``We could see a repeat of what happened on Saturday,'' Jim Brenner, fire behavior specialist. Complicating matters, authorities planned to rotate in a new fire management team.

The forecast called for more hot, windy weather as early as Tuesday.

In all, about 250 families were evacuated when the Black Mountain 2 fire surged across some 6,000 acres in about two hours, burning three homes. Firefighters say they successfully used retardant foam on about 100 others that were in the fire's path. The blaze stood at about 7,316 acres Tuesday.

State authorities said they were sending 200 members of the National Guard to help local law officers patrol roads near area forest fires.

The guardsmen, part of the 1st Battalion of the 163rd Infantry, are from Great Falls, Anaconda, Hamilton, Missoula, Livingston and other towns, authorities said.

As of Monday, the Forest Service's Northern Rockies Region had 63 major fires - of 100 acres or more - and about 40 of them were in Montana. The region includes Montana, northern Idaho and portions of North Dakota.

Gov. Judy Martz was in Missoula Tuesday, meeting with fire officials and area residents. She made similar trips to major fires in eastern Montana and Glacier National Park this summer, ``and Missoula seems to be a pretty serious situation right now,'' said spokesman Chuck Butler.

The Helena and Lewis and Clark national forests closed all of the Scapegoat Wilderness on Monday. The Helena National Forest also closed all of its lands north of Montana 200 because of fires near Lincoln, spokesman Jerry Meyer said.

Weather is the key to everything, and trouble is on the way, said Susan Rinehart, information officer at the Northern Rocky Mountains Fire Information Center in Missoula.

``After what happened on the Black Mountain fire, everybody is being very cautious about the weather,'' she said.

Rinehart noted that fires continued to threaten power lines in several areas around Missoula - one that carries power for the Bonneville Power Administration to eastern Washington, and another NorthWestern Energy line that provides power to the Bitterroot and parts of Missoula.

But NorthWestern Energy said the threat of blackouts, which it warned last weekend were a real possibility, had diminished.

Susan Fischer, NorthWestern Energy spokeswoman, said crews were wrapping threatened power lines with protective retardant. And power lines lost last week to the Hobble fire near Big Timber should be up and running by the middle of next week, she said.

``Right now our system is stable, and the reconstruction on the power lines is going well,'' she said Tuesday.

Eleven fires in Montana were each 10,000 acres or more, and the biggest, the Robert fire on the west edge of Glacier National Park, covered 43,000 acres. That blaze had closed the park's popular Lake McDonald area and the western entrance to the Going-to-the-Sun Road. Both are now reopened.

Across the state, authorities said more than 1,700 homes are receiving structure protection, and that the fires have forced numerous road and recreation closures.

The Wedge Canyon fire in the northwest corner of Glacier has burned 41,106 acres, after growing by 500 acres on Monday, said fire information officer Beth Wilson. She said crews have a sprinkler system in place to protect buildings.

Meanwhile, Doug and Alison Best, back in their home Monday night, wondered if winds like those that came Saturday would return to drive them once again from O'Brien Creek Road.

``We're going to keep everything in a mobile status,'' said Doug Best. ``That thing came so quick.''